I’d never been on a ship before, so an opportunity to cruise the tiny archipelago of Lakshadweep, off the coast of Kerala, promised a voyage for me, both literally and metaphorically. And I can never resist a good metaphor.
In Hindi, ‘Laksha’ means one hundred thousand and ‘Dweep’ means islands. There are about 36 islands. So it’s a bit of an oversell, but I guess from a marketing point pf view it’s simply a more romantic name than ‘3 Dozen Islands…Give Or Take’.
The Good Ship M.V. Kavaratti
The M.V. Kavaratti is both a passenger and cargo vessel, which sets sail from Willingdon Island in Kochi, hopping between the islands of Minicoy, Kalpeni and Kavaratti during the days, sailing at night, and returning to Kochi on the fifth day. The whole 5 day tour including a cabin bed, meals and organised activities costs around €300 (25,000 rupees) per adult. I hadn’t really got the time to read anything about Lakshadweep before I went, so everything would be coming as a surprise. The first surprise apparently being the 99,964 missing islands.
The whole thing was new to me. Generally, mountains attract me more, and I am not a lover of water sports. So I was mainly going for the pristine white sandy beaches, the coastal cuisine, and to experience a stay on a merchant vessel. I had no idea that the ocean itself would bowl me over more than any of that.
The boat is primarily a transport vessel. So while the upper decks are booked for tourists, the larger lower decks have local residents travelling from the mainland to the islands or visa-versa. The upper decks have air-conditioned twin sharing cabins with an en-suite bathroom. Through the little cabin window you could see the sun rise and then set to allow the moon to glisten brightly atop the endless ocean. It absolutely blew my mind how much furniture and amenities could fit into this tiny cabin. I just loved how space was utilised. Like something from the future. Or Japan. And I have always love bunk beds; the ladders, the little curtains, the way they’re like little home-made dens of personal space. I get an immense sense of childlike joy out of them.
The ship eventually pulled anchor and set sail at around 2pm. We were served a sumptuous Indian lunch with heavy emphasis on tuna. We’d have tuna every day. Lesson one of life at sea – expect Tuna. Generally, Lakshadweep cuisine is much like coastal Keralan cuisine which tends to be quite fish-focused anyway, and coconut is omnipresent in almost every dish. Neither are bad things.
After lunch I went for a nap but was soon woken by torrential rain thundering off the cabin walls. We were travelling in June when the south west monsoons were just beginning to drench Lakshadweep before making their way into the heartlands of India. I soon discovered that monsoons on the mainland and monsoons at sea are very, very different. We left our cabins to check out these tropical storms, but out at sea the winds were so strong we could scarcely stay upright.
First Stop – Minicoy Island
I eventually drifted off to the hammering rain and woke in the morning fully expecting to be swaying with sea sickness, but for an ocean newbie I felt amazingly alive, and leapt out of bed ready for the island of Minicoy to amaze me! My amazement had to be put on hold for a few hours however, as the local passengers are always allowed to exit before the tourists. This took ages. There are only a dozen or so small saddle boats that take fifteen people up to the shore at a time, so it was a good few hours after anchoring before we were finally on the launch boat chugging our way over the choppy post-storm waves towards the beach.
After hopping out of the small boat and wading our way through the surf, we were greeted with fresh green coconuts, a tradition in Lakshadweep. And there it was right in front of our eyes, the crisp white sands of Lakshadweep spilling into the crystal clear sea, just waiting for us to plunge in.
Minicoy, locally known as Maliku, is the southernmost atoll of the archipelago of Lakshadweep. The archipelago is only about 60kms from Maldives and is just as beautiful. Tiny island paradises that are a breath of fresh air from the populous intensity of mainland India.
The monsoons had landed, and the dark clouds rarely left the sky during our stay, but the stormy greys and blues just gave the beachscape a great moody vignette. We splashed around in the warm azure waters until lunch; some great local cuisine with, of course, a lot of tuna. After lunch I dozed off in the heat until the coolness of dusk stirred me just in time to show that great clouds make for an even better sunset. After spending the day on the beach, we went in to the village for dinner where we were served local delicacies, and before we left for our ship we each received a departing gift. Three tins of tuna. Obviously.
That night I just stared through my cabin windows for hours. The clouds had temporarily dispersed leaving the full moon and glittering stars reflecting off the deep, dark ocean beneath. The same pitch black ocean that was stretching for miles around and underneath this chunk of metal we were bobbing around in. It was quite frightening if you thought about it too much. Frightening, but exhilarating.
Kalpeni was every bit as mesmerising as Minicoy, except on Kalpeni we befriended the ocean a little more. This was because today snorkelling was on the itinerary! We went to an adjacent island called Cheriyum for this. When the tide is low, it is possible to walk through the coral gardens all the way to Cheriyum Island from Kalpeni, but we took small boats.
It was my first ever time snorkelling and I absolutely fell in love. It all felt like some kind of fantastic meditation. With your face in the water your mind is absolutely still and I just felt completely at peace. You feel the warmth of the ocean, looking at a world away from yours, an alternate dimension, with beautiful things in every direction. I wanted to be there, all day and all night. In the ocean it felt like a void in my mind that I didn’t even know existed was suddenly filled.
No experience could beat snorkelling that day, so I spent the rest of the day relaxing and reminiscing on the underwater world.
On our way back to the ship, we were engulfed in a yet another gorgeous sunset.
Kavaratti is the administrative capital of the archipelago of Lakshadweep, considerably larger in size and with a bigger population, but the beaches as pristine! By now I was a pro at this beach life. We for hours in the clear waters of Kavaratti. The ocean felt familiar. Just like one warm conversation can turn a stranger into a pal, snorkelling made the sea feel like one of my closest friends.
Sundown brought us back to the ship one last time. We would have to disembark in Kochi next morning, and I’d be safely back on dry land after my first ever adventure at sea. But it certainly wouldn’t be my last.
By Priyadarshini Das